Sunday, May 31, 2020

May 2020 - Taking Refuge


I woke up this morning thinking about refuge. Witnessing the suffering in our country from the relative safety of our mountaintop is quite the privilege. Every instinct we have has been telling us to become as food and energy independent as possible, and to create a place that offers comfort and diversion in uncertain times. 

This is now our whole life in one picture; the modest rented home from which we work, and the bit of land we are trying to fill with as much life as possible. It's a story of our times that feels right to tell. 

So thank you for reading, and here's what we've been up to in May...

May is one of my favorite months, the perfection of spring, the welcoming of the sun while everything is still green and before the hot, dry summer begins. It certainly is my favorite garden building time. It feels good to be back in the saddle, working in such a peaceful setting on a garden that will feed our family.

We don't have a lot of flowers around the place now; but what we do have we have a lot of! This huge clump of Salvia leucantha is tucked in a deep corner between the driveway and the front walk. It just needs to be cleaned up a bit in late winter and it blooms year-round. Same with the massive banks of lavender and lantana in the back - they must all have been here for years. I tucked praying mantis egg cases in several likely places earlier this spring - hopefully my favorite insect will be making an appearance later in the season!

So here is where May began - still in that frustrating "it looks great in my head" place where everything is just a mess. First priority was to get the poor strawberry starts planted (they've been waiting more than a week for us to get the bed gopher-proofed). Half the bed is "Quinalt" ever-bearing and half is "Evie-2" day-neutral. Next tasks: set up the second raised bed and fill the grow bags for the warm season vegetables. We'll have no shortage of sun, that's for sure. 

Speaking of sun, here's a sunset! It's interesting to watch its daily progress north; there's a different view every evening.

A week later and things are looking much better! I scored these beautiful chunky bamboo poles from a kind neighbor, and have been pondering what to do with them in the garden. The shortest one was used to span the gate, which was an immediate improvement! A second one will be suspended from the two tomato cages in the back, and will hold the cucumber netting. And the last four really wanted to be a bean teepee, so I said fine. 

I like adding height in the middle of a garden; it keeps things interesting and makes good use of your space. The metal raised bed gives the poles nice corners to lock into, and the whole arrangement is pretty darn sturdy.

I was going to have all my shelling beans grow up some sort of trellis along the south-facing side of the garden, but changed my mind for a couple of reasons. First, only one of the beans was actually a climber (oops!) Second, I now have a bean teepee! So I'll grow the one climber (Hidatsa Red Indian) on it, along with some heirloom Cannelini beans. The bush beans are neatly lined up behind, as they should be.

Flower break! This is the first bloom on my new Thunbergia "Rose Sensation" from Annie's Annuals. It is one of the most cheerful plants ever. I'm tucking vigorous vines in two opposite corners of the garden, hoping to enclose it a bit and provide shelter from wind. I have also popped a couple of moonflower seeds into the pot, I would love to get them growing on the fence as well. You can see little Rose peeping out in the lower left corner of the next photo.

I asked my generous neighbor if he had any more bamboo laying around, looking for something to do, and he did! I had been toying with the idea of reinforcing the top of the fence with bamboo, and the new pieces were perfect for that. Have I mentioned that zip-ties are the best invention ever? 

It's details like this that make the garden feel settled, complete and personal, no matter what you are working with. My design/build mantra is: finish your edges, hide your wires, mind your transitions and be generous with your materials. 

Remember when I said I'd figure something out for the gates in the deer fencing? Here's one solution. Another kind neighbor gave me some smaller bamboo poles, with top-knots still attached. I slit the deer fence right up the middle of the gate opening, and then wove a pole in and out along each edge and secured with zip ties.

At the top I trimmed the leaves to just above the edge of the fencing. Makes it look rather jaunty!

At the bottom I pounded a chunky piece of PVC into the ground. The bamboo ends drop in, bringing the fencing snug to the ground, and then I just secure the two poles together with a strong clamp to close up the garden at night. I like how the two sides gracefully fall open when I unclip them in the morning; I can also fold them back completely out of the way. 

Someday I'll have a nice gate here, but for now, this works fine. We really don't have deer nosing around this area of the property; it's off their normal browsing path, and there is SO MUCH else for them to eat that we haven't seem them expend extra effort for food. We close it up at night anyway (we've recently spotted chipmunks, rabbits and a sunflower-seed loving skunk, all of whom could cause mischief in a garden.) Time will tell what visitors we'll have, and how resourceful they will be - we really have no idea!

I've been flirting with this chair for ages, and decided I now have somewhere to put it. My daughter and I were talking recently about our mutual love of chairs. I think it's because I need to sit to really think and focus. When I'm planning a garden, I can sit motionless for an hour, just looking and thinking and planning and imagining. And once the garden is done, I like to sit and look at it! EVERY garden must have a chair or two, otherwise it's just a place to stand around in.

And who has time to stand around anyway, because the chicken coop has arrived! Bang on time as promised from Urban Northern Coops in Washington. It was beautifully made, reasonably priced and easy to put together. This is just part of our chicken housing arrangement though; with wild animals about we want to make sure the girls are safe, so we're designing a solid setting for it. 


Flower break! Hector is due to mow the meadow today (it has to be done for fire safety, and to prevent us from misplacing Milo). Viewed up close it's a very sweet collection of sturdy small field flowers (the yellow dandelion is about the size of a dime, for reference). It's been interesting to watch the succession of blooms.

But who has time for blooms when there is planting to be done? I will spare you the complete inventory; you'll no doubt meet the rest of the cast at some point. I will share a couple of highlights though; these exquisite pale-green zucchini come from Lebanon, and are very sweet and tender. 

Shelling beans are so cool looking! This mix includes several varieties, including these called Jacob's Cattle. I'm doing individual pots of each variety (don't YOU sort all your seed mixes?) These are beans that you leave on the plant all season until the pods turn leathery. Then you shell all of the beans at once, dry them a bit and then store them for the winter!

Another benefit to grow bags? They are a nice height for working at from a chair. Remember what I said about sitting? When I was a younger woman I thought nothing of plopping right on the ground (and I scratched my head at the "garden kneelers" I'd see in the gardening catalogs). Now I understand. My trusty camp chair has been great for this; I can prep soil, plant, thin, harvest and inspect for pests. And it will hold my beverage.

Carrots, beets and spinach are coming right along! We've been harvesting spinach leaves and beet greens for salads already. I don't harvest the whole spinach plant, by just removing the outer leaves you can keep it going a lot longer. This variety is called Bloomsdale and is so tender and tasty.

By Memorial Day weekend the sun has come out and night temperatures have topped 50 degrees, so you know what that means? We can plant all the tomato, pepper and cannabis seedlings and get our windowsills back!  

John's in his happy place in the back 420!

More fun with bamboo - now that the tomatoes are planted I can finish building the cucumber trellis. Kind of hard to see, isn't it? This is black vegetable netting suspended from the large bamboo pole, and anchored at the bottom with another piece of the slender bamboo. All firmly zip-tied to the tomato cages - this makes everything more stable. We have one grow-bag of pickling cucumbers (smaller and bumpy) and one of slicing cucumbers (smoother skin). 

As May draws to a close, my heart aches for the world. The solace of familiar garden rhythms has been comforting. Everything is in the ground and something new is sprouting every day. I even found the perfect spot for my small strand of prayer flags; you'd be surprised how much their gentle fluttering adds to the peaceful feel of the place. With bees settling in and the garden planted, our next project is to get our greenhouse and chicken area figured out. 

So now we're up to date, except for one more sunset! This is our view on a hot evening, with the high pressure holding all the fog down, and a knife-sharp horizon line.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

April 2020 - Breaking Ground


Welcome back! Today we'll be diving right into our garden building, but first, I'd like to orient you. Our house is tucked into a rolling hillside, about midway between the ocean and the summit of the Santa Cruz mountains in San Mateo county. We're at 1,100 feet above sea level, and face due west.

These hills were cleared in the 1800s for cattle ranching, and this spread has been cared for by the same family for generations. There are a dozen or so homes scattered about the property; ours is the highest. It's just below the arrow in the picture (click any photo to see it larger).


This is the view from the same spot looking east toward Skyline Boulevard, which runs along the distant ridge. That's Langley Hill on the left. On the far side of the ridge is the Santa Clara Valley, where I grew up. These days, except for the odd horse or two, the ranch is largely populated by deer, wild turkey, owls, hawks, turkey vultures, quail, mourning doves, wood pigeons, red-winged blackbirds, finches, juncos, blue jays, swallows and hummingbirds.

It is a busy, busy place.


This is where we'll begin. When we moved in last fall our landlady referred to this area as a "blank slate." As a landscape designer, those are magic words indeed. And yet, I would never presume to put a typical "designed" landscape here. This is a ranch. Form follows function, and form is on a budget. We wanted whatever we put here to fit, and to work, and to be as affordable as possible...and of course, I want it to look beautiful and interesting too.

There will be lessons, I'm sure. This is a wild, windy hillside, not the sheltered redwood valleys I'm accustomed to. Even the most protected spots on the property are vulnerable. We want to approach structures like chicken coops and greenhouses mindfully. It's nice to be flexing my design muscles again, with a spouse would loves to build things.


First things first. We needed to protect the garden from deer. I had used this kind of fencing on a project before, and was impressed by how unobtrusive it was. If we're going to intrude upon this bare field, at least we won't block the view!

After Hector the handyman mowed the grass very short, we staked out the area our 100' of fence would cover. We used the same kind of metal t-stakes found elsewhere on the ranch. A few are askew. I can work with that! I think it took less than an hour (using a fence post driver). They seem pretty sturdy, and I'll be reinforcing where needed as I fine-tune.


So, with deer fencing, there's always this deal with the gates. But who wants to mess with making a gate at this stage. Right now it's a couple of flaps, I will figure out something later.


So, for perspective (and posterity) this was happening the first week of April, 2020. It was the height of no toilet paper Covid-19 lockdown. I have continued to work from home during the pandemic, and thankfully work has been busy! But the days were getting warmer and I was anxious to get my cool season vegetables started, so I just slapped down a few pieces of cardboard, filled as many of my old grow bags as I could with the six bags of potting soil I could fit in the back of my car and we were in business.


This is the nicest seed collection, and I highly recommend them. No frills, just seeds in little plastic packets, 32 open-pollinated heirloom varieties of all the basics was a relief to find because, you know what? In April 2020, seed companies are running out of seeds! In APRIL! This is unprecedented. I know this because I worked for Renee's Garden Seeds for several years and remember the rhythm quite well. You don't run out of seeds until summer, that's a pretty hard rule. It was surreal. I did buy some of Renee's wonderful seeds, I'm sure you'll meet them later. But this little silver packet got everything started.


So on a brisk, sunny day in mid-April I planted beets, spinach, parsnips, carrots and peas. Such a comforting early spring bunch! They seem to be thriving in our cool, often foggy climate.


So here's what we're working with, soil-wise. Or, more accurately, trying to avoid disturbing too much. Our meadow is gopher heaven. You can sit here and hear them munching underground, and watch whole plants disappear into their holes. Most La Honda gardeners plant in sturdy, gopher-proof raised beds. Once we have gardened here a season we may build something a bit more permanent. For now I wanted quick, effective, easy to work with and affordable.

Sheet mulching is my new best friend. With good packing cardboard and grow bags you can make a robust instant garden just about anywhere. The cardboard does a good job of smothering the (mostly shallow-rooted annual) grasses. It's very pleasant to walk on too. As the cardboard melts under the grow bag a root/soil bond is established with the ground beneath, which helps bag-grown plants find deeper sources of water, as the roots can permeate the bottom of the pot. You have to be aware of this, and try not to move containers around when the plants get bigger. We're double and triple-layering the cardboard in the pathways; once everything is planted and settled we'll cover with wood chips. Since we are ordering a lot by mail these days AND pay a lot to have our garbage/recycling hauled away, this is an excellent use for all the boxes!


By the way, I hope you like sunsets, because there will be sunsets. This is the view from the front porch, looking west towards San Gregorio.



By late April it was time for bees! We had met with Ray from NorCal Bees before the quarantine, but had to wait for a swarm to be available to get a hive. Ray knows what he's doing, and had us set up in a jiffy. It was the first nice weekend in awhile and we were excited to get our bees! Ray is a great resource for San Mateo County, along with the county Beekeeper's Guild.

We love having the bees around, and it has been fun watching them orient themselves to their new location, mapping out their nectar sources, and training new bees to do the same. Their comforting buzz is a nice backdrop to the garden, and neither of us bothers the other (although they will bump into you if you stand in their flight path).


We have really enjoyed the opportunity to shop local as we build this garden. One disadvantage to grow-bag gardening is the investment in a HEAP of new soil the first year. Thereafter we'll recycle old soil; mixing it with new compost. We get this amazing planting mix from Wheeler Farms, up the road toward to coast in San Gregorio. A nice man named Peter brings it up and dumps it right there on the tarp for you. Beautiful. I can breathe easier, because now I have seeds, bags, dirt, and a fenced garden. Game on!


Here, have another sunset. We don't get them like this every night; the fog regularly rolls in long before sundown. You can bet, though, that if the sun is out, we're on the porch watching it! I've always been a sun-tracker - I want to know where it rises and sets at all times of the year. Our internal sundial for this bit of land is being set during this first year.


Yay! the next bit of garden infrastructure has arrived; two metal raised beds that will be the centerpiece. I like some things fixed in a garden, to build around. One bed will be dedicated to strawberries, the other is tentatively slated for salad greens, but that changes almost daily.

The new beds are open-bottomed, so we'll need to line them with hardware cloth before we can plant. During quarantine, hardware cloth has been surprisingly hard to find. I hope it's because other people are building gardens too.


Next up in the livestock department: part of my stimulus check has been invested in a nice chicken coop! I've wanted chickens ever since meeting these girls at garden writer Rosalind Creasy's house in Los Altos, many years ago. They lived in a charming coop in her front yard and were an integral part of her garden (and her neighborhood). We can't wait to have some girls of our own. I have 10 massive railroad ties to work with, and am busy working out the best layout for coop, covered run and fenced yard, probably combined with some sort of greenhouse or hoop-house (which would fulfill a decades-old dream).


Speaking of livestock, my old readers will remember my cat Haku, who appeared regularly in my posts, and is still is our official greeter. He's now 17 and a little crotchety, but he loves the new house and garden and has adapted well. Warm railroad ties, we find, are his new favorite thing to lie on. He no longer hunts and the quail can walk right by him (if you know quail, you know how amazing that is.)

And now Haku has a friend. John's dog Milo is a wonderful addition to the family, and he and Haku get along quite well (meaning, they pretty much can't see/ignore each other, as well as enjoy each other's food). Unfortunately, Milo's favorite balls are the exact size of gopher holes. There have been many losses. It is, however, amusing when we step on one and make it squeak.


Switch up! You get a sunrise this time. Isn't this amazing? The fog traces the exact route of the road going to the ocean, which is about 8 miles away (as the crow flies!)


The beets are up!



And the peas!



And the carrots!


And the spinach! Don't spinach seedlings look joyful?


Plenty of other goodies crowd our window sills, awaiting sunnier days and nights that stay firmly in the 50s (which we will hopefully see in May!)


One last April sunset. What a month. While it is exciting to start from scratch, it's also a little frustrating. I like things settled in, to know what goes where, to have what I need to do the job properly. April was decidedly unsettled in so many ways. My "keep calm and carry on" nature has been tested as the world up-ends around us. There doesn't seem to be much good news.

And yet, we are so grateful to be in this beautiful place, gainfully employed, with outdoor projects to provide some balance to the horrors of the news cycle. We are prepared to stay home, and are quite literally digging in for the long haul.

I hope that each of you are doing well, and if you are thinking of starting a garden, follow along! Next up: May!


Sunday, May 17, 2020

Reset 2020 - The Return of Interleafings


Greetings after a long absence!

It seems like several lifetimes since my last post in the fall of 2011. I was writing from a tiny apartment, after losing my beloved house (and gardens) due to the recession. To supplement my shrinking landscape design business, I was doing PR for the SF Flower & Garden Show, marketing projects for green businesses and working part time at a local garden center. Garden blogging without a garden or much time to write didn't seem to make much sense any more.

Nine years, four moves, three career changes and a whole new cast of characters later, I'm building a new garden. A different kind of garden. One that is intended to feed more than just my creativity. In one momentous month last year, everything fell into place to make this possible - new job, new relationship, new home. The stage was set for a new chapter. And this is the preface.

A blog makes sense again, because some of you might be interested in what John and are doing during quarantine, including a deer-and-gopher-proof (so far) grow-bag garden, beehives, chickens, a budget greenhouse and (in the garage) aquaponics. Our goal is a regular source of fruit, vegetables and protein, produced in sustainable ways that touch the earth lightly.

During such uncertain times it seemed natural for us to do this. The fires and power outages last year only underscored our wish to become more self-sufficient. Now as we shelter in place, we feel doubly fortunate to have landed in such a perfect spot. We have enough space to do what we want, and are finding ways to be creative with what we have. This is a wild place, and our efforts include peacefully coexisting with many local creatures, great and small.

So there you have it, I hope you'll stay tuned for some posts about what we've been up to over the last couple of months. The header image is our back forty - before. It already looks quite different, can't wait to show you. Today's picture was taken from inside the vegetable garden. That the enormous aerator looks exactly like a corona virus makes it an obvious mascot for a garden born during a pandemic. [Correction: According to my dad, who knows such things, that is not an aerator, but in fact a sheepsfoot roller, used in road construction. So there!]

Thanks for being here, and I hope you are able to find ways to engage your heart and mind during this truly historical period. Feel free to say hello and share your tales in comments!